ATHENS — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart explained how the competition for position never stops, from one play, drill, day and one game to another.
“Every position on our team, every week,” Smart said, asked where the Bulldogs have position battles playing out at.
Georgia (9-1) plays host to UMass (4-7) at 4 p.m. on Saturday (TV: SEC Network, Radio: WSB 750 AM, 95.5 FM).
What outsiders might view as an easy win against the overmatched FBS independent Minutemen — the line opened at 43 1/2 points — is viewed by several players on the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs as an opportunity to show their skills in a game.
But first, Smart points out, they must compete for those snaps, and they must fit the scheme.
“We have to get better, and that’s what our focus is this week, on us getting better, our ability to grow young players,” Smart said. “I put just as much emphasis in practice as I do in the game. So we’ll see how the game goes. If guys get to play, they get to play.”
Smart said redshirt freshman cornerback Eric Stokes is working with the first team after replacing true freshman cornerback Tyson Campbell and grading out highest among defenders in last Saturday’s 27-10 win over Auburn.
Campbell has stated the first 10 games this season, overcoming a shoulder subluxation suffered in the Sept. 22 game at Missouri.
“Stokes has been going with the first group but he’s competing, playing well, (and) so is Tyson,” Smart said. “Tyson’s got a lot to learn, and when he’s going with the 2s, you find out how much he still has to learn because he doesn’t have the safeties that know it as well as the 1s.
“So the communication is not as good. So we’re finding out that he maybe has more to learn than we thought because the (starting) safeties help him a lot more.”
Smart explained that freshman Otis Reese making his first career start over sophomore Richard LeCounte had to do with the personnel package Auburn played.
“It’s really not a rotation as much as it is personnel based, so depending on what the other team is in, we play one or the other of the safeties,” Smart said. “Otis is getting better. Richard is actually getting better. The best thing for Richard has been Otis’s growth. So I think that the motivation and the competition has made Richard better.”
Smart pointed to each level of the defense having competition, too.
“Inside backer, every week, outside backer, probably more the second and third at the outside backer than the first (D’Andre Walker),” Smart said. “But defensive line. We’ve had changes in defensive line, and you all don’t write about who starts there, but we’ve had a lot of changes there. Secondary – we’ve had a lot of battles at safety, and rotating the dime, nickel and star.”
Walker is the only linebacker to start all 10 games for Georgia. Natrez Patrick has started seven of 10 games at inside (Mike) linebacker, Juwan Taylor has six starts at inside linebacker (Will) and Monty Rice has five starts at inside linebacker (one Mike, four at Will).
The offensive line is competing with one another just to stay healthy. Right tackle Isaiah Wilson is the only offensive lineman not to miss paling time on account of injury.
But Smart pointed to the receiver group and tailback position as spots where the competition has led to different starters from week to week.
“It’s changed throughout the year at wide receiver probably three times as to who started, based on who practiced well during the week, that’s been pretty consistent,” Smart said. “I mean (Elijah) Holyfield started some games at running back. So that comes about through the work ethic you have during the week and putting a priority on how your practice matters, and that’s every position.”
Riley Ridley leads the receivers with nine starts, Mecole Hardman, Tyler Simmons and Terry Godwin each have five starts and Jeremiah Holloman has started two of the past three games.
D’Andre Swift started the first four games at tailback, but Elijah Holyfield has started the past six.